It’s time for the Asian Champions League Final. Jeonbuk were at home to Qatari team Al Sadd, giving them what seemed to me to be an unfair advantage in a one-off tie. Still, I’m not complaining, it’s better than it being played in Timbuktu or somewhere, although admittedly the chances of the Asian Football Confederation ever staging the game in a West African town are pretty slim. Probably about as slim as those of FIFA awarding Qatar the World Cup Finals, I imagine.
Jeonbuk has done pretty well this season. Apart from reaching this final, they ‘won’.the K-League with a couple of weeks to spare, putting themselves directly into the play-off final. Lee Dong Gook has had a good season too, top-scoring in the Champions League with nine of the twenty-five goals that he has scored this season coming in that competition. For all of that though and despite playing some great football, they’ve won nothing yet.
Jeonbuk’s route to the final was fairly straightforward, the only recent downside being an injury to Lee Dong Gook in the first leg of the semi-final that had kept him out of action since then. Al Sadd had a much more eventful run to the final, qualifying for the competition as a late replacement only after the Vietnam FA had forgotten to send their entry form in and then despite losing both legs of their quarter-final managing to go through due to their opponents fielding an ineligible player.
Al Sadd overcame Korean club Suwon Bluewings in their semi-final with the help of a goal scored as a result of them pretending to return the ball after it had been kicked out for an injury, but then playing a defence splitting pass to set up a goal instead. The mass brawl that followed included a kung fu fighting sub.
There were reports that this game would be a sell-out and although this seemed unlikely Jen and I turned up an hour and a half before kick-off just in case. Jen asked the girl in the ticket office for seats in the ‘Special Zone’ which is the area where you get a table in front of you and free beer and chicken to put on it. I was a little surprised that the tickets were only 15,000 won rather than the usual 20,000 and when we got in we found out why. They weren’t ‘Special Zone’ tickets after all, those seats were reserved for visiting posh people and our ‘Special Zone’ seats were just normal lower tier seats. I didn’t fancy that so we headed upstairs and took a couple of seats next to the media section and close to the halfway mark.
I think I’ve started to take some of the good things about Korean football for granted. Drinking beer whilst watching the match for example. I’m used to either bringing in a few cans or else just buying a bagful from the shop inside the ground. Tonight though in a ruling more annoying than staging the final in Timbuktu would have been, the Asian Football Confederation had decided that beer had to be decanted into paper cups. Marvellous. As I’d already been hiking that day and didn’t want to be negotiating the stairs every five minutes I got three cups, the maximum I could carry. At least they were alcoholic I suppose, UEFA don’t even allow that at their matches.
As the teams lined up I discovered that Lee Dong Gook had only made the bench, with his lack of match fitness after his injury probably counting against him.
The rumours of a sell-out were exaggerated, but it was an exceptional turnout for a Korean club game. The official announcement of 41,805 was probably only five or six thousand above my own assessment of the crowd. I suspect that Korean pride at the prospect of winning an international trophy made it more like a game involving the national side. Jen and I had been here a month earlier and despite Jeonbuk being top of the league the place was empty then. I suspected that some of the crowd hadn’t been to a match since the 2002 World Cup, which made the lengthy queues for paper cups of beer all the more frustrating.
There didn’t seem to be as much media interest in the game as I’d have expected, or at least they weren’t occupying the designated area. Perhaps they were all in the ‘Special Zone’ drinking our free beer and eating our chicken. The media seats didn’t go to waste though as a party of kids just took them over.
As far as the football goes, Eninho put Jeonbuk ahead early on with a free-kick from the edge of the box. At that stage it looked as if Jeonbuk would run away with the game. They didn’t capitalise on their advantage though and Al Sadd levelled on the half-hour with a headed own goal from Sim Woo Yeon.
I braved the queue at half time only to discover that the beer was sold out. That’s what happens when you get thirty-five thousand people showing up once every eight years. In the second half Al Sadd stunned the home crowd when they took the lead after a quick break. With twenty minutes to go Jeonbuk brought on Lee Dong Gook and Lee Seung Hyun in an effort to try to get back into the game.
The final twenty minutes consisted of constant Jeonbuk pressure punctuated by Al-Sadd timewasting. I reckon we only got about ten minutes where the ball was actually in play, with the rest of the time being spent treating Al Sadd players for a variety of mystery ailments.
The substitutions paid off though when right on the final whistle Lee Seung Hyun snatched an equaliser for the home side.
Despite them stealing my Special Zone seat and then buying up all of the beer before half-time I couldn’t help feeling pleased for the Jeonbuk fans, even those who didn’t appear to know which team was which.
Neither side really looked like winning it in extra time and so penalties it was. The Korean bloke who turns out for Al Sadd, Lee Jung Soo, diplomatically missed his penalty but none of his team mates did and Al Sadd picked up the trophy. Jen and I struggled for a taxi afterwards and ended up with fried chicken and beer after all as we killed time in a hof waiting for the part-timers to make their way home.
Next up for Jeonbuk is the K-League play-off final at the beginning of December. Even though the crowd will drop by three-quarters I’ll be playing safe and filling my pockets with cans of Asahi.